Psychology for social change

Ella Rhodes talks to Sally Zlotowitz, Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Community Psychology Section.

Sally Zlotowitz, Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Community Psychology Section, whole-heartedly believes the time has come for Community Psychology to shine. ‘A growing movement within mainstream psychology is more explicitly making the links between how changes at a society level impact on people and how certain groups of people are becoming increasingly oppressed and marginalised by political and economic choices. We are realising that ideas of power, privilege and context can no longer be ignored by psychology – feminism, racism, neoliberalism, alienation, materialism and structural inequalities need to be addressed head on. This is what community psychology has been saying (and acting on) for decades.’ 

Psychologists from many areas of the discipline are seeing the real-world results of austerity measures on public mental health – the group Psychologists for Social Change, formerly Psychologists Against Austerity, published a document on these effects. Inequality is also clear to see in the UK, with the Equality Trust reporting the 1,000 richest people in the UK have as much wealth as the poorest 40 per cent of households.

Benefits sanctions have also been highlighted by many as a major cause for concern. The British Psychological Society, along with the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy, the British Psychoanalytic Council, the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies and the UK Council for Psychotherapy, sent an open letter to The Independent calling for the suspension of these sanctions due to their negative impact on mental health. The letter was later raised on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show in an interview with then Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke.

Zlotowitz, one of the co-founders of Psychologists for Social Change, said interest had been growing steadily in the Community Psychology Section of the Society as well as in Psychologists for Social Change – which now has groups across the country. ‘Community psychology and its ideas have been badly neglected by mainstream psychology, which we know is overly-focused on individuals’ and individual minds. We still have a long way to go to ensure community psychology is taught, funded and applied to the same degree as other fields of psychology, but we need community psychology now more than ever.’

A longstanding environmental and social justice activist, Zlotowitz almost embarked on a career in campaigning but later moved into cognitive neuropsychology and then clinical psychology: ‘As my interest in green and social political issues grew outside of my professional life, I found myself frustrated by the lack of connection between the big picture issues like inequality, class, race, housing, community disconnection and climate change, and psychological distress. Why were people so interested in helping people “cope” with social adversity, rather than working with people to change the policies which lead to social adversity?’

Since being introduced to Community Psychology during her clinical training, Zlotowitz has remained a passionate advocate of it. For the past eight years she has worked at mental health charity MAC-UK, which draws on community psychology interventions to work in partnership with young people affected by serious youth violence in their communities. ‘Community psychology brings my personal and professionals values together and I am deeply inspired by the people who I meet through it.’

Zlotowitz said she had seen a blooming interest in the area over recent years. ‘I think psychologists working in the health, social and/or education sectors are experiencing an ever-growing demand for services that are not offering the right solutions: they are too limiting and limited. And I think people are seeing increasing suffering because of social and cultural issues, like rising homelessness, ecological crises, isolation and an ever-increasing pressure to be “perfect”, consuming individuals.

‘One overarching concern of community psychology is the individualisation of psychological distress and the disproportionate amount of funding and research that goes into individual processes and interventions within applied psychology, including positive psychology. Expecting individuals to change “their mindset” fits with the current cultural and political context that keeps structural power and structural violence invisible from our everyday experience.’

Zlotowitz has recently been involved with starting the Housing and Mental Health Network to take action on an unjust housing system. ‘We are working in partnership with the inspirational housing activist group Focus E15 in London, who have been actively campaigning on how processes of regeneration and gentrification, post the Olympics in Stratford in their case, lead to “social cleansing”. This is when local people in council housing are “displaced” to areas many miles away from their communities which causes a great deal of mental health distress.’ As psychologists, she said, we should be working to change the housing system itself to prevent this kind of social cleansing, rather than just supporting those who are displaced.

However, some view the work of community psychologists as ‘too political’, Zlotowitz said, and many psychologists involved in the area do this community work in their spare time. ‘Finding ways to bring this type of work into frontline health or social care work is absolutely something we need to address; it is possible.’

Since the Section was founded it has run three Festivals of Community Psychology aimed at being more inclusive alternatives to conferences. ‘We have replaced Hilton Hotel venues with local community arts venues, Powerpoint and keynotes with storytelling, spoken word, film, experiential workshops, dance and participation by community members. We keep the festivals affordable and still informative, with plenty of national research, services and projects represented. We have used local independent businesses or social enterprises set up by community groups to cater for us, like the Vietnamese women’s cooking project/social enterprise supported by psychologist Angela Byrne. We’d recommend taking a more creative, participatory and accessible approach to sharing ideas and research across all fields of psychology.’

Zlotowitz and her colleagues have also been researching policies such as the Universal Basic Income and how these alternative approaches to welfare, social security and economic policies might benefit the health and wellbeing of the population, particularly socially-deprived groups. With many psychologists keen to affect community change but unsure where to start, Zlotowitz recommends informing ourselves on behalf of the marginalised in society rather than accepting more mainstream narratives. ‘I would argue all psychologists should be familiar with organisations such as the New Economics Foundation, Equality Trust, Debt Resistance UK or the Tax Justice Network – all questioning the current economic “logic” and structures and promoting the alternatives which increase equality and justice. And read about critical and community psychology ideas.

‘Then get involved to address these social determinants of wellbeing – whatever you feel most passionately about, engage with it. Join community organising groups or start your own – whether it’s refugee issues or housing insecurity, there is a group tackling it and they will welcome your skills as a psychologist with open arms. You’ll find it soon snowballs in a lovely way.  

‘Think of ways you can connect your work and skills as a psychologist to these issues and find local allies and like-minded people to amplify the voices of those most affected by inequality and to change the way systems work. We have to work collectively, and I am so grateful to everyone involved with the BPS Community Psychology Section and Psychologists for Social Change. The argument can be won on the grounds of evidence and because it’s the right thing to do. Equality is the best therapy!'

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It's great that these views are being taken more seriously and breaking through. I really hope they become part of the mainstream in psychology. There's strong evidence from many strands of psychology/behavioural science to support the notion that our environments have an enormous impact on many aspects of our thoughts, emotions and behaviour. It's about time that the role of community and social context are fully integrated into psychological models.